Promotion still matters.
Even as the structure of organized work (what an oxymoron) continues to flatten with the shift to greater numbers of freelancers every year, being promoted still matters today.
In earlier times promotion as tool for both recognition of the individual and model for the team was used more frequently than now, unfettered economic growth making the practice acceptable. But humankind's history of rapid GDP growth has been minimal – essentially limited to the last 200 years – and expansion of western economies has now slowed to more historic levels.
Since innate growth has abated hierarchical promotion has slowed too as firms rethink structure. In plain English, its getting harder to get promoted.
So how to understand the politics of promotion.
- Organizations get what they deserve. The promotion system is just another system and as such, produces what its designed for. I.e., its a blueprint. Examine the common attributes of those being promoted in your company to find what the system values. Firms make this overt when they mark someone with promotion. If your KSAs are not in line with this then you have a challenging task. Never give up, but be realistic about what you'll need to do.
- Promotion seldom comes to those who wait. Some insist you wait your turn as if standing in line when it comes to promotion. Avoid these people: they are wrong. Promotion comes to those who make things happen. Yes, while every culture is a little different (although more alike than not) at the end of the day wallflowers don't get promoted unless the CEO is a relative. [Avoid family firms as well – their ceiling is steel not glass.] Get stuff done.
- Mistakes happen. For many reasons, including wishful thinking, at times the wrong people get promoted. It happens: practice a little Buddhism and accept it. Its not the end of the world or your career. If the wrong people continually get promoted you are in a sick system. Should this be your reality, re-think the value of promotion in the firm you work for: it may not be all that.
- Free agency is here. Despite some marginalization the at-will doctrine still rules in the US. Either party can end the employment relationship at any time (as long as the reason is not illegal). Workers are both more expendable and mobile today than ever before. So how long should you toil for promotion before moving on? That depends on your industry, career track and other factors. But its up to you: you can vote with your feet.
- Skills count. When all is said and done there is no substitute for hard work and hard-won results. Promotion, like a pay raise, is given in recognition of accomplishment not anticipation. If you're looking for the silver bullet to the promotion track its called consistent results. Be mostly right as one of my early mentors told me. Be mostly right, and be active.
Being promoted isn't the only way our firms underline their approval of what we've done but it still matters.
Like other systems involving human nature there are periodic incidents which make us wonder about the system integrity, yet, by and large the system still works.
Thus, if promotion matters to you, its incumbent to understand how it works in your environment.